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The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, by James Shapiro.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Pp. 367.

Reviewer: Dr. Renée Pigeon,
California State University, San Bernardino

(June 2016 Issue / PDF)

James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 is a work of popular history and literary analysis for the general reader.  Similar in scope to Shapiro’s earlier book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (HarperCollins, 2005), it combines discussion of the plays Shakespeare is believed to have written in the given year with topical events that may have helped to shape Shakespeare’s approach to his themes, plots and characters.  Where the earlier book concentrated on one of the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 provides a view of the Jacobean Shakespeare in one of the early years of James I’s reign, the year in which Shakespeare likely composed three of his great tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.   

Shapiro notes “The year 1606 would turn out to be a good one for Shakespeare and an awful one for England” (7). It was, most notably, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, a planned act of terrorism that, while it failed, lead to repercussions and harsh measures against many inhabitants.  He argues that the events of the Fifth of November led “not only Shakespeare but everyone in the land” to consider questions such as “How can ordinary people attempt such horrible and unthinkable crimes?” (133), questions that would lead Shakespeare to undertake writing Macbeth. Shapiro’s account of the impact of terrorism on a society will no doubt resonate for many of his 21st century readers, though he leaves the reader to make connections between 1606, when, for example, the government “resorted to torture, worse than the ill it sought to cure” (196) and now.  

Interwoven with extended analysis of particular scenes and themes from the three plays under consideration are chapters focused on James I’s desire for the unification of the two kingdoms he ruled;  witchcraft and demonology;  the importance of court masques;  and above all, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. The analysis linking the historical moment to King Lear and Macbeth is significantly more compelling than the final section on Antony and Cleopatra. In those chapters, Shapiro connects the Roman play to nostalgia for the Elizabethan years, as well as the state visit of King Christian of Denmark, James’ brother-in-law, comparing King Christian, King James, and Queen Anne to Octavius, Antony, and Octavia. A final chapter provides a vivid account of an outbreak of plague in July 1606, and an epilogue sums up what the year meant in the context of Shakespeare’s career and the years that would follow: “For the Jacobean Shakespeare, who struggled to find his footing in the early years of the reign, no year’s output would be more extraordinary than that of 1606” (305).

As he must, given the lack of documentary evidence about what Shakespeare thought and felt, when Shapiro turns to Shakespeare himself we often encounter “almost certainly” and “almost surely,”  “well may have,” and “well may be.”  This extends not only (and understandably) to assumptions about Shakespeare’s thoughts and feelings, but also to more factual issues: was he present at a particular event? Almost certainly.  Did he purchase a copy of a particular book?  Almost surely.  But Shapiro’s assumptions and speculations are generally well-grounded, the evidence for them adduced, and the reader’s investment in his argument is seldom strained too far.

A specialist reader will encounter some frustrations.  As in his earlier book covering a year in Shakespeare’s life, Shapiro’s comments on lifespan in the Jacobean period suggest he shares an all-too-common misconception about the concept of average life expectancy, a figure that is significantly reduced by a high rate of infant and childhood mortality.  Here, he implies that by 1606 Shakespeare would have felt himself to have few writing years remaining, noting that “Shakespeare turned forty-two in 1606. In an era in which people lived on the average until their midforties, Shakespeare knew he couldn’t count on too many years left to write” (7-8). After all, only one of Shakespeare’s brothers, Shapiro notes, survived to his forties (8).  But the average life expectancy of approximately forty in this period did not mean that death in one’s forties was the common lot, especially once one had survived the grave dangers of infancy and childhood. Shakespeare might equally well have anticipated living considerably longer, as did Elizabeth I, who reached 69; the poet and friend of Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Fulke Greville, stabbed by a servant at the age of 74; Shakespeare’s own parents, who both lived to see 70; and his sister Joan, who survived to the age of 77.  More likely an interpretation of what being forty-something might mean to Shakespeare is found in Stephen Greenblatt’s  Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare  (W.W. Norton, 2004). Greenblatt writes of Shakespeare in 1604:  “Even at a time when life expectancy was short, forty was not regarded as ancient.  It was the middle of the passage, not the reckoning” (356).

A surprising gaffe occurs with regard to the order of events in act four of Macbeth: after commenting on the use of equivocation in a powerful portion of act four, scene three, when Ross informs Macduff of the attack on Macduff’s castle and the death of all his family, Shapiro writes “In the long and unsettling scene that follows, yet another seemingly virtuous character, Malcolm, swears and lies to Macduff. . . ” (198, emphasis added). The exchange between Macduff and Malcolm of course precedes rather than follows the news from Ross.

Finally, for the specialist reader some—perhaps much—of the territory covered will be very familiar indeed (for example, the relationship between the Porter’s speech in Macbeth, equivocation, and the Gunpowder Plot). While that is to be expected, a higher percentage of fresh insights would have been welcome, though many will no doubt be new to the book’s intended audience. This is a valuable and even entertaining work for the general reader with a love of Shakespeare and an interest in the historical moment that helped to shape some of his greatest plays, written in a lively and accessible style.